Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Rank 'em: The X-Men Films

Pull up a chair, grab a cocktail, crack open the bubbly, and settle in for some list-making.
My last post about X-Men: Apocalypse started me thinking: how would I rank all of the X-Men films to date? Ranking pop culture stuff is always fun, after all, so let's do this. Note, these are my wholly subjective opinions and the list is more about which are my favorites or least favorites than trying to measure their quality objectively. That list would probably look very similar to this one anyway. But then I think about X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film I can't objectively call "good," but that I enjoy nonetheless. And yes, I'm including the solo X-Men films in this list because they're all part of the same cinematic universe.

1. X2: X-Men United

Probably the best poster for any of these films, too.
X2 has long been considered the best of the bunch and while I'd like to offer a contrary opinion, I tend to agree with that assessment. It's the most taught and cohesive film of the franchise, probably because it keeps a relatively narrow focus throughout. The basic premise, inspired by the classic God Loves, Man Kills, is terrific and plays off one of the most important themes of Chris Claremont's Uncanny X-Men run: mutants are seen as the Other and virulent hate-mongers like Colonel Stryker will use the powers at their disposal to wipe them out. For me, it's the best celluloid representation yet of what the X-Men are all about.

2. The Wolverine

This one might rank in the #1 spot for me if only it had ended as strong as it started. In the third act, Viper was just silly and Silver Samurai was less than imposing, plus the less said about that everything-but-the-kitchen-sink final battle royale the better. Which is a shame because the first three-quarters of the film work exceptionally well. Wolverine-in-Japan stories are a staple in the comics, thanks to Claremont's and Frank Miller's influential 1982 Wolverine miniseries. This film adapts some of that story and is filled with ninja, samurai, beautiful Japanese vistas, and fantastic set pieces—the funeral scene leading into a high-octane chase through Tokyo is the highlight of the film for me. There's also strong character work being done here, especially for Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Yukio (Rila Fukushima). Logan's visions of Jean Grey even work better than they have any right to, thanks in part to Famke Janssen's and Jackman's chemistry. Director James Mangold crafted a gorgeous looking movie and Jackman turns in his finest performance as Wolverine yet.

Rila Fukushima as Yukio and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine make a kick-ass team.
3. Deadpool

This is a near-perfect adaptation of what's made the "Merc with a Mouth" such a fan favorite in comics for years now. This the rare superhero film that actually feels like the comics its based on: silly, sophomoric, crude, loud, funny, obnoxious, and even occasionally heartbreaking. Ryan Reynolds makes it all work in the role he was born to play. X-characters Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are fun guest stars and help tether things to the X-Men cinematic universe. And as Wade Wilson surely knows, if you're going to undergo a radically invasive experimental procedure to save your life for a woman and that woman is Morena Baccarin, then it's certainly worth the risk.

"After a brief adjustment period--"
4. X-Men: First Class

Thinking hard, or hardly thinking?
Most of my enjoyment of First Class derives from the swingin' '60s outfits, hairdos, and set pieces. No one seems more swingin' here than the White Queen herself, Emma Frost (January Jones). Just look at her icy, vacant glare in that GIF—she's ginchy! The entire film is full of similarly fun mod style and plenty of kitsch to spare: Bacon hams it up in every scene; the X-Men eventually sport yellow and black outfits reminiscent of their first comic book costumes; and Magneto's (Michael Fassbender) and Xavier's (James McAvoy) storied bromance begins. It's also less convoluted than most of the other films in the series. It really does feel like a much-needed franchise refresh after the abominable Last Stand (guess where that one ranks??)

5. X-Men: Apocalypse


Yep, she just sliced that car in half, in mid-air, and stuck the landing.
Critics and moviegoers alike seemed less than enthused with this film. It's not a good movie, per se, but I actually had fun watching it. It's the most loopy of the X-Men films yet, rarely taking itself too seriously. It does what so few of these movies have managed before, which is to entertain us with over the top action, outlandish costumes, and colorful characters. It was the most "comic book-y" of all of the X-Men films, which is refreshing. I think years of grim 'n' gritty comic book movies were starting to wear me out. I'd rather re-watch this one than most of the other films on this list. Plus, let us never forget that Olivia Munn as Psylocke slices a car in half.

6. X-Men Origins: Wolverine


Wolverine as the Brawny Paper Towel Guy.
My feelings for Origins: Wolverine mirror those of Apocalypse, for the most part. Wolverine's first solo movie is more of a mess and less cohesive than Apocalypse though, and certain aspects are infuriatingly stupid (like Deadpool's portrayal, for instance). But dammit if I don't love the early scenes establishing 1970s Canadian lumberjack Logan trying to live a peaceful life with his lady, Kayla Silverfox (the always underrated Lynn Collins). The movie had some potential, but it flies off the rails spectacularly after these initially convincing and eerily moody scenes. Still, at times it's an intriguing hot mess, one I find myself at least partially enjoying whenever I stumble across it on cable.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past

I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but this entry in the series is also a convoluted mess. That can be said about most of the films on this list, so frankly I'm grading a curve on here. This was an enjoyable time travel trip through the 1970s, but ultimately none of it makes a lick of sense. Also, I understand that Kitty Pryde couldn't play a big role in this film because they've never really established much of a role for her before in these films, but it's irritating that a movie based on a Kitty-centric comic book story diminishes her role here in favor of sending Logan back in time to prevent disaster. That's one of the problems with these movies in a nutshell, though: they're continuously spotlighting the same few (mostly male) characters—Logan, Magneto, Xavier, and sometimes Mystique—and usually shafting the rest.

8. X-Men

This is a better film than Origins: Wolverine and possibly better than First Class or Days of Future Past, but it's also aged poorly since its release in 2000 and isn't a movie I care to revisit very often. It does a decent job establishing things in the X-Men's world, but it also never felt like my X-Men. Granted, none of these films feel like my X-Men, but most at least have moments here and there that strike a chord. This one has those moments too, certainly. It's this low on the list because frankly, compared to the nuttiness of the rest of the series, it's fairly staid and forgettable now. I mean, I can't even think of a fun or clever moment to link to here, like I did for most of the others on this list! 'Nuff said.

9. X-Men: The Last Stand

Instead of a screen grab from the film, here's the superior source material that it bastardized.
This is the movie that made me never want to see another X-Men film. First Class helped me get over that, of course, but ten years later I still hate this film with the same raging, red-hot intensity of the Phoenix Force. You see, Brett Ratner and Co. took as their source material only the greatest and most iconic of X-Men stories, "the Dark Phoenix Saga," and proceeded to thoroughly misunderstand what made it so seminal by translating it into this steaming pile of garbage. The other films on this list are often a mess, but at least enjoyable in parts. There isn't much to like about this one, least of all the shoddy "Dark Phoenix" adaptation aspect. I'm going to keep this brief: Last Stand is a disaster and not worth revisiting. I may be a bit harsh because of my undying love for the source material, but even setting that aside this is still a lousy film.

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I didn't even discuss the timeline shenanigans in the latter films in the series—Days of Future Past rejiggered the timeline, undoing some but not all of the events of previous films. I guess? Honestly I've given up on trying to make sense of it, which makes for a more blissful existence, trust me.

I also haven't really explored just how so many iconic X-Men characters are misused in these films. From Storm to Kitty to Rogue to Jubilee, many of the neglected giants from the comics are women, which is a shame. As any X-Men reader knows, female X-Men are quite often the best X-Men characters. Sure, Wolverine may be the most popular (or is that Deadpool these days?), but the ladies are the backbone of the series and have been since the late 1970s. To see so little done with characters like Rogue—think of the possibilities if they'd given her a prominent role over a series of films!—is more than a little heartbreaking.

If the forthcoming 2017 Wolverine solo movie, Logan, is anywhere near as great as its trailer then it might slot in high on my revised list next year. It's also reportedly Jackman's last time playing Logan. We'll see about that, but if it's true then the inevitable X-Men franchise reboot is probably not that far away. Maybe in the next five to ten years, at least, I'd guess. In the meantime, this is how I rank 'em. What's your list look like?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Random Observations on X-Men: Apocalypse


I finally saw X-Men: Apocalypse recently. After reading so little positive feedback about the film since it released in May, my expectations were low. They were lowered further by my lukewarm response to the X-Men films. If X2 is the apex of the franchise (and it is, no question), then Last Stand is the absolute nadir. It's been ten years since I saw it but I'm still can't talk about it without raising my voice and swearing. It shat upon my favorite comic book story of all time, after all. So, I like some of these films, dislike others, but tend to find something entertaining in nearly every one of them—except for Last Stand. No way.

As for last entry in the series, Days of Future Past, I enjoyed it fine. As with most of the films in the franchise though, when I apply even the slightest bit of critical scrutiny to it, the entire thing falls apart like a house of cards. So I'm not sure I'd say it was a good film, but I found it entertaining. After seeing Apocalypse, I've come away with basically the same feeling. It's a bit of a confounding mess (aren't all of these superhero films, to varying degrees?) but it seems like the filmmakers know it's a bit of a car wreck and are leaning heavily into the skid. They're rolling with it, all the way. Which makes sense because the story its loosely based on in the comics is even more inscrutable. That was a sprawling year-long crossover event in the 1990s that pushed the limits of how far a comic book event could go before readers collapse from exhaustion. The film isn't nearly as batshit crazy (nor as fun) as the comics were, but it's still bizarre and in many cases entertainingly so. It's also still a mess, that can't be denied.

So with all that in mind, here are some of my rambling thoughts about the film.

Looking appropriately apocalyptic.
Olivia Munn is terrific yet mostly wasted as Psylocke. Look, Munn takes a lot of hits around the internet for being nothing but a pretty face (and body) who lacks in acting chops but somehow keeps getting work. This always strikes me as patently unfair—and sometimes even sexist—for a few reasons. She's been okay in some stuff, forgettable in other stuff, and also very good in certain stuff. She was very funny in her brief stint on New Girl. When she's matched with the right role, she can bring it. Psylocke is most definitely the right role for Munn—she looks a lot like the way the character is drawn and she's a mega fan of comics in general and this character specifically. So, it seems only right that she was cast. Her costume is ridiculous but that's almost the point—while wearing it, Munn looks like she stepped right off the comic book page and into the screen. As a live-action adaptation of Psylocke's classic costume, it's nearly perfect. It's also appropriately garish because Apocalypse is a big, loud, colorful film. It doesn't shy away from comic book excess, like most superhero films trying to stay "real" often do. As I said earlier, it leans into it's goofiness, hard. Munn's Psylocke costume is a perfect visual representation of that.

In action, Munn is phenomenal. She appears to do all her own stunts and they're never less than awesome. Sometimes we watch superhero movies to explore themes and ideas that make us think harder about life and ourselves. Other times we just want to see things like Munn somersaulting through the air while slicing a car in half (don't ask why the car was in the air; I told you this movie let's it all hang out) and then landing while brandishing her swords like a boss. It's a killer moment and you almost expect her to say, "That all you got?" Bad-ass. Scenes like that make the movie enjoyable. Sometimes we forget that superheroes in the comics do outlandish things that we could never do in real life. Sawing a car in half while flying through the air is one of those outlandish things that superhero films should do more often. So kudos to them for that and other similarly cool scenes of Psylocke in action.

My inner geek squealed with joy at this scene.

However. Munn is severely underused and besides the great stunts isn't given much else to do. That's a shame. It's clear that Munn had fun with this role and loves the character. Psylocke is an important character in the comics, one with a lot of depth and nuance. None of that gets explored in the film. But, she does use her psychic energy (represented like purple flames, just like in the comics) and, lest we forget, slices a car in half.

I just wrote three paragraphs on Olivia Munn's relatively small role in this film. It won't surprise you then to hear that I'd like to see a Psylocke solo film where Munn gets to explore the character's interesting (and often troubling) history while also doing things like slicing a car in half. Can someone get on that, now? Thanks.

James McAvoy and Michael Fasbender have a bromance for the ages. As if we weren't sure of this from the previous two films, they hammer home the message: these guys play off each other so well that I'd be willing to watch a two-hour long film of them sitting down for a game of chess. They make the characters of Charles Xavier and Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr their own while also bringing to life the qualities that each possesses in the comics. It doesn't hurt that the filmmakers are as in love with them as we are, so they're given plenty of moments to shine. The two characters have been the heart of this recent wave of X-Men films, and with good reason. They flesh out the backstory behind the terrific performances by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan from the earlier X-Men films. There are a lot of things to nitpick with these movies, but it's hard to have problems with McAvoy's and Fasbender's performances.

Kitty said it best.

Can someone remind me why Charles mind-wipe Rose Byrne's Moira McTaggert after the events of First Class? If they told us why I don't remember. To protect her? That's weak sauce. Either way, it's disturbing but also completely in line with Charles's actions in the comics—dude is constantly invading people's minds and manipulating them for "the greater good." For a supposed hero, Charles does a lot of shady stuff with his powers. He always justifies it as necessary in order to save people from harm, but sometimes its questionable. I did love the scene where McAvoy seemingly improvises his stammering awkward conversation with Byrne (whose Moira has no memory of Charles) in their (second) meet-cute.

Jean Grey goes full-on Phoenix and it's absolutely glorious. This scene, when Jean takes down Apocalypses by frying him to a crisp with the Phoenix Force, is outstanding. I could watch it over and over and geek out just as hard every time. First, she's walking on air. That goes right up there alongside slicing cars in half in mid-air when I'm compiling the best bad-ass scenes from this film. The visual effects did a tremendous job of impressing upon us the stunning cosmic power Jean possesses when she unleashes the full force of the Phoenix. It's a jaw dropping scene that does a much better job of adapting the Phoenix to screen than Last Stand did (let us not speak of that film again here). Sophie Turner turned in a good performance as Jean, especially in scenes like this and the one where she uses her telepathy to give Logan back his memories. But guys, seriously, the Phoenix scene is radical.

These movies are still neglecting a huge part of the appeal of X-Men comics. What's that, you ask? The female characters in X-Men comics are, for the most part, fantastic. They're usually rich and varied characters with subtle shades of grey and each with their own agency. Plus let's not forget they kick a lot of ass. Storm, Rogue, Kitty, Jean, Psylocke, to name just a few, are all complex and interesting characters as well as some of the most powerful in comics. So far in this franchise, we've rarely seen any of these women be anywhere near as awesome as they are in the comics. I've covered Psylocke already. Rogue and Kitty are severely downplayed in these films, which hurts my heart. They're not even in this one. Jean has been important in the films but also not that well defined. Storm? No matter which movie or who's playing her, she's never come anywhere near her level of importance in the comics. It's depressing that the filmmakers have more often than not subordinated the female characters while elevating Logan, Charles, and Erik. By doing so they're completely ignoring one of the core strengths of the comics, one every fan knows: the women are the best characters in X-Men comics.

What about Mystique, you say? Don't get me started. Mystique is an intriguing arch foe of the X-Men in the comics. In the films she's portrayed by an actress who doesn't seem all that invested in the part and whose motivations are usually dependent on plot and not character. And as with Logan, Charles, and Erik, Mystique has hogged far too much screen time. The internet will tell you this is because Jennifer Lawrence became a mega star after First Class and I tend to agree. It's a shame though, because the character isn't interesting enough in these films to warrant all of the attention.

Besides the emo hair, Nightcrawler was terrific.
Nightcrawler and Quicksilver were sufficiently fun and visually delightful. Alan Cumming was quite good in X2 as an older and more somber Kurt Wagner, but Kodi Smitt-McPhee is a blast as a younger and goofier version of Kurt. His "bamfing" all over the place was enough to put me in geek heaven, plus his humor was well timed and genuinely made me laugh. Evan Peters turns in another great performance even if the character he's playing, Quicksilver, bears hardly any resemblance to his comic book version. That's not Peters's fault plus it's for the best; in the last two movies the filmmakers have made Quicksilver far more fun than he's ever been on the page. Peters is a big reason why, of  course.

Um, how many people died during Apocalypse's, well, apocalypse? Sure, the X-Men prevented full scale apocalypse, but the big guy and his four horsemen got some damage in first. I mean, Magneto alone must've murdered thousands with all the building razing he was up to in those scenes. It seems highly unlikely these places were devoid of human life, but I don't recall seeing any shots of people perishing either. Color me confused.

The murder of Magneto's family was ludicrous. It's an understandable yet not exactly creative motivation for the return of Magneto. It works because of Fasbender's acting. His reactions throughout the film, but especially in this scene and immediately after, are electric. Still, one arrow penetrate two people's bodies, killing them both almost instantly? I...don't...know. I'm clearly no expert in archery or death-by-archery, but this seems specious.

Even Cerebro gets a 1980s makeover, complete with a heavy Tron vibe.
The scene where Charles is using Cerebro and Apocalypse invades his mind was off the hook. This is the best Cerebro scene in any of these films yet, hands down. McAvoy sold it and made me believe when Charles was overwhelmed by feeling the enormity of the power of Apocalypse. Even watching Nicholas Hoult, as Hank McCoy/Beast, furiously trying to rip out all of Cerebro's connections to prevent Apocalypse from accessing its full scope and power was a blast. It doesn't hurt that Hoult looks an awful lot like me any time I have to find the correct damn cord to unplug behind the entertainment center.

There is so much more to love and hate about this film. I could go on. It's a long movie, packed tight with crazy set pieces and wildly over the top characters. But it also had some real affecting moments woven throughout. After watching it I was initially less than impressed. Now, after a few days to let it settle in, I'm realizing I enjoyed it more than I thought. It's still not the X-Men movie I dream of seeing one day, but at times it does a good job of translating the spirit of the comics to the screen.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Barely Making a Dent: November 2016 Books


In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

I broke down and ordered a tall five-shelf bookcase earlier this week. It's nothing fancy, but it should help consolidate some of the backlog of books from around the house. Now we can set aside one of our smaller bookcase for the kids' room, too. I'm antsy for it to be delivered so I can make some progress with the book piles. Note, in this instance "progress" means "Moving books from one place to another" as opposed to "Getting rid of any books." Baby steps, right?

Currently reading

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Having read and been perplexed by this book in college, I haven't revisited it since. But it's lingered with me all these years. In college I may have been too young to grasp what she was doing here, but I was certainly fascinated by it. I hadn't read anything quite like it before. Since then, I've read more about Le Guin, including this fantastic recent piece in The New Yorker, but still haven't read much more of her work beyond some short stories. The New Yorker profile made me realize she's the kind of author that plays with themes and ideas I find appealing and worth examining: isolation, identity, and politics, to name a few. The Left Hand of Darkness resonates much more with me today, especially having started my reread immediately after Election Day this month. Her story of an envoy from another world trying to make sense of the people of the planet Winter has only grown more powerful with time, as oppression and fear of the Other seem as alive and well as ever in our current political climate. Le Guin traffics in big ideas, using metaphor and symbolism to explore how these ideas impact us. I'm more than halfway done with the book and absolutely loving it so far.

Recently read

Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang. I was able to read this entire run in six trades (thanks to the public library). The series ran from 2011-2014 and I've heard plenty of good things about it since. It didn't disappoint me. I'm becoming more and more interested in Wonder Woman recently—as a character, a concept, and an icon. To my way of thinking, Diana seems like the most thoughtfully progressive of the major superheroes. Alongside her super powers, she's also compassionate, kind, sympathetic, and empathetic. Azzarello placed a heavy emphasis on Greek mythology and seeing Diana interact with the mischievous and arrogant gods was a pleasure. Chiang's artwork is absolutely gorgeous, which is not a surprise. He's one of the best cartoonists working right now and his Diana exudes strength, intelligence, and warmth—just as any interpretation of her should. There's a reason why they chose an illustration of his for the recent Wonder Woman postage stamps. Stellar work, highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Five Years


I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all

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When you hear the words, "It's cancer," your mind seems to burst open, as if every thought you've ever had is rushing back into your brain at once, each crowding for space until finally your head can't contain them all. That lasts for several seconds, followed by the arrival of an eerie tranquility: you've gone numb. I experience this first hand in October 2011. It's at that moment that my life is bisected into two halves: the years before and after cancer. I'm scheduled to have surgery to remove the tumor quickly, in just over a week. The next several days are surreal, I'm walking through my life but there's a giant, ever-expanding hole in it now. I can feel the vast blackness of it creeping closer to me every minute of every day. I only tell certain people what's going on, mostly because I have no idea how to talk about it. It still feels like it has to be happening to someone else, not me.

The night before surgery, my wife and I are trying to remain calm. We cry. A lot. We try to take our minds off of it, so we turn on the television. By some stoke of serendipity, You've Got Mail is on, which happens to be one of our favorite date movies, one we consider ours. We revel in the unabashed romanticism between two corny book lovers, and the way it captures the state of the book industry in the final years of the twentieth century. We've seen it dozens of times previously, and will see it several more times in the next five years. I'm acutely aware of how grateful I am to be in her arms, watching a movie that provides some small measure of comfort, on a night when we desperately need it.

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This blog goes live in the spring of 2015. I conceive of it as a form of therapy—I will dig deep and exorcise the demons of those last several years, while also looking farther back to my younger days, to the formative events and people that shaped me. A year and a half later I've done this to a degree, only often through various filters. This coincides with my writing for a few websites about pop culture. Writing directly about ourselves is difficult, but sometimes we can do it more truthfully when writing about something else. I subscribe to the belief that everything we write is in some small way about ourselves, making writing a fairly narcissistic but necessary act. It's a way to work through your personal issues within the context of broader issues. Still, on days when self-doubt creeps in, I think I'm building a wall by writing about myself in an essay about, say, a movie or a book. I'm keeping some emotional distance, almost like cheating. Other days, I think that it's an honest way to expose emotions that are buried deep down inside, or to allow the ones closer to the surface to bubble over and be free.

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The middle of 2013 is particularly brutal, beginning in June and lasting into the very start of October. Most of these days feel like an unending panic attack. It starts when my father falls out of bed, breaking his hip. After a surgery and a long stay in the hospital he's transferred to a rehabilitation center. That fall changes the entire course of my parents' lives and marriage. Those initial weeks in rehab are eye-opening, revealing to all me just how much his Parkinson's and Parkinson's-related dementia have eroded his physical and mental abilities to the point that no amount of rehab will bring him back to anything resembling normalcy. The dementia prevents him from remembering what he's worked on in rehab, so every day is like starting over, and progress is an impossibility.

A few weeks after my father's fall, my mother begins a months-long odyssey in another hospital after an ulcer requires emergency surgery. At one point while sitting in a hospital waiting room, all I can think of is the line from Yeats' The Second Coming: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." It starts to become a mantra, one of cold comfort. My wife and I spend these months driving around, visiting each parent in different hospitals and rehab facilities, barely eating, hardly functioning at all beyond the absolute bare minimum necessary just to get through it.

This being the latest in a series of stressful events in recent years, I'm losing patience. I'm tired of seeing in people's eyes what they see when they look at me: "Oh, poor Michael. He's had to face one thing after another." That sort of shit. You can tell me the sentiment is genuine, but I can also tell you that the people who get it still look at me like I'm more than just the sum of all of my problems. These are the people I need to be around right now, to help alleviate even a little of the pressure. Because there are days where I feel like the pressure is so intense, that I cannot possibly handle one more unhelpful conversation with a nurse or doctor or social worker. On those days I wan to be anywhere but here. I feel useless as a husband, son, friend. I'm a raw, frayed nerve, distant and emotionless most of the time except when I'm overreacting or breaking down.

If I fall will you catch me?
If I'm sorry, sorry enough
If I fall will you pity me?
Will you confuse my love for the cobwebs?
Will you confuse my love for the cobwebs?

For the cobwebs?

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After successful surgery in October 2011 I'm resting at home for several weeks into mid November. The doctors recommend radiation therapy treatment as a precautionary measure. That will need to be planned once I've had time to get back on my feet. I spend most days of my recovery camped out on the couch, with the cat for company while my wife works. My parents visit sometimes, bringing in food. I have little to no appetite but it's still much appreciated.

With so much time to think, I feel it best to read or watch something, to distract my mind and avoid thinking too hard about what has happened to me and what is yet to come with radiation. Normally I'd reach for a novel but I'm finding they require too much focus, which I lack right now. Instead, I read comic books and graphic novels. The balance of art and text is more conducive to my current mood. Comic books and the art inside their pages have been a lifelong inspiration. They're the reason I began drawing at such a young age. My generation is the first to have grown up on comics but not outgrown them; our fathers and grandfathers read them, but stopped when it was time to become adults. Not us, though. We've absorbed the stories and art into our DNA. I'm not sure this is a good thing, this perpetual adolescence that so many us seem stuck in, well into adulthood. As I pull another book off the stack next to the couch, I wonder about how healthy it is to find solace in the pulp and science fiction fantasies in these pages. Then again, how healthy is it to need a lifeline but ignore one that's right in front of you?

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In late September, 2015, my mother and I are sitting at my father's bed in the nursing home. He's unresponsive and it's becoming clear we won't have much more time with him. At one point when my mother is talking to him about me, my wife, and our kids, his eyes open briefly. For a split second, he looks right at me, then his lids close slowly. This is the last time my father and I will look each other in the eyes. I will continue to see his eyes in both my son's and my own eyes, as well as his smile in my daughter's similarly twinkling grin. But he and I will never look at one another again after this moment.

He always looked me in the eye when we talked, he always made me feel important and like I was worth listening to; he was devoted. In his room at the nursing home, I think of this and how fast it can all slip away, how fast it is slipping away. For years I've had a father to talk to and spend time with, and then one day I simply do not anymore. We assumed we had years left. That isn't the reality, though. As my mother and I sit by his side, the reality is he's being taken from us. Over the ensuing weeks and months I fight like hell to hold onto the moments and the memories, because I'll be damned if anyone's ever taking those away from me.

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We find out we're having twins in the late spring of 2014. After the initial shock subsides a bit (twins!), I'm ecstatic. Bolstered by this, I decide I'm finally ready to watch the movie 50/50. It came out the year I was diagnosed with cancer. I haven't been able to bring myself to watch it since; in fact I tend to avoid most mentions of cancer altogether. I'm still processing it but I tell my wife I think I'm finally ready, that the movie might be good therapy.

I cry so many times during the film that I lose count, but I have an especially intense reaction to the scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character is being prepped for surgery. He's with his parents—his loving mother who's scared beyond belief for her son but trying to be strong for him, and his father, whose Alzheimer's keeps him from fully comprehending what his son is going through. As if all of that didn't hit close enough to home, watching Gordon-Levitt's performance feels like watching myself. Even though the movie is not an exact reflection of my experience—for instance, my tumor was caught early and I never needed chemotherapy—rarely have I felt this deeply, personally connected to a film and a character before. The movie perfectly portrays what it feels like when you have cancer. Just as they're about to wheel him into surgery, Gordon-Levitt starts to break down, choking out only the word "Mom." His mother holds him and tells him he'll be fine. He weeps, and my wife and I fall apart.

The experience is like looking back in time at myself from 2011. That's me on screen, all of my fear and panic and terror and uncertainty. I see everything I was before that moment, and everything I've become after it. I'm sorrowful for the man I was that's lost now, and appreciative for the man I've become, both in spite of and because of cancer. I don't feel emotionally healed, by any stretch, because that's a continual process that will last a lifetime. I feel changed, in positive and negative ways, and I feel more able to accept all of that now than I could before. 50/50 is life affirming for me: it validates my own experiences and emotions while giving me the strength to continue this process of acceptance of who I was and who I am now.

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One lingering effect of surviving cancer is occasional and irrational self-doubt. Perfect example: I begin to question what kind of friend I've been. This is prompted by the overwhelming kindness I receive from my friends—have I been as good to them?—and also by some old (yet new to me) news I hear in 2016 about one friend from way back. The news hurts to hear. I wonder how she dealt with it. How she's dealing now.

That summer when we hung out had a direct impact on who I became and she played a part. I'd been sort of sleepwalking for a while, not really connecting with anyone. Just by listening, she helped me feel anchored for the first time in, god, years. I listened to her concerns and my heart ached for what she faced at home. Mostly, we put it all aside and had fun. Still, what if I'd tried harder—or at all—to stay friends when we broke up? Would it have helped her later? Probably not. That time was just a stepping stone. She found new people to confide in, just like I did, just like we all hopefully do.

How can you spend a concentrated amount of time with someone and then its as if they never existed to you?

Memories recede a little farther back in our minds every year. It's hard to remember what made them or the people who populate them important. It's not nostalgia. The past wasn't better than the present. It's that life then was still relatively pure, untouched by cancer or loss or other tragic events. Things that changed us. We all lose something. What I'm feeling now, when I hear this news about a person I hadn't thought of in years, is the weight of that loss. It's a collective loss of innocence—hers, mine, yours, ours.

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My wife and I spend the last few months of 2013 and early 2014 trying to decompress after the struggles of the previous few years. I didn't think it was possible to feel this calm again and it's liberating. We go to concerts, spend time with friends, and take day trips to get away. We're finally able to make having children a priority, and this all feels like one last hurrah for just us before that (hopefully) happens. This time together, free of illness and with no family members in hospitals, helps us heal.

I finally seem to be making some sort of noticeable progress with my mental recovery from cancer. Follow-up visits and tests still stress me out, of course, but the time between them is longer the farther out I get, and that time feels better, more fulfilling. Now I see hope in that line from The Second Coming—"Things fall apart; the centre will not hold." After things fall apart, you can rebuild them.

One of the positives to overcoming cancer is that it's left me with a clarity about certain aspects of myself and the world around me that I didn't possess before. My tolerance for bullshit has decreased enormously. I'm more grateful for the people who make life worth living, like both old and new friends. At the top of that list is my wife, my partner in all things, who shares every experience with me—good, bad, and ugly. It's sometimes easy to forget just how many life changes we've seen each other through since we met. We were just kids.

While cancer can bring clarity to your life at times, it can also bring crippling emotional ineffectiveness at other times. Sometimes I see myself on the other side of a moment, days later, and still can't express why I didn't do more. Why didn't I provide greater emotional support or availability to my wife, or a family member, during that moment? I find myself asking these questions more than ever recently. I'm prone to avoidance and procrastination when facing something difficult or challenging, which can't be easy for my wife to live with. But she sees more than just that. She recognizes better things in me that I have trouble seeing in myself sometimes.

We've weathered several ferocious storms over these last few years but we've got the lighthouse in our sights now. The destination is close, we can almost feel it. We're seeing the end result we want and we're working as positively and harmoniously as we can to reach it. Times like this remind me that I'm not only the cynic I tend to identify as, but also the hopeful idealist that my wife sees in me.

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The day after my father passes away in October 2015 I keep an already planned lunch date with a close friend, knowing that a kind face will do me some good. This friend knew me way back when, during those years when we were all just becoming something, on our way to who we'd be later in life. We'd lost touch for years—there's that sad phrase again—but thankfully reconnected later. She has a family too, so we share stories and relate to each other's insane daily lives raising babies and toddlers. We've become the kind of friends as adults that I never would have imagined when we were teenagers. She likes to tell me how kind I was to her back then, and she's never forgotten that. It's amazing how differently we appear in other people's eyes compared to how we see ourselves. Hearing this goes a long way towards making me feel less like a loner and more like someone who makes serious, lasting connections.

In these last few years, and now with my father's death, my friends rally behind me in ways that never fail to surprise me—not because I didn't think they cared, but because the depth of their caring is beyond anything I'd ever imagined. This old friend regularly sends cards and texts at just the right time, always saying the right thing to lift my spirits or make me laugh. That's the kind of person she is, as are so many of my other close friends. They've all helped me realize we don't go through hard times alone; instead we support each other, prop each other up. We're there for each other.

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During and immediately following my diagnosis and radiation therapy, I repeatedly and obsessively listen to the 2011 album Only in Dreams from the Dum Dum Girls. As I drive to radiation therapy every day for a month, I listen to it in the car. I listen with headphones when I'm at work or taking a walk. Many of the album's songs are about loss, grief, and the acceptance of both. The music is classic noise pop, dream pop, and shoegaze, and infectious as hell. Lead singer and songwriter Kristin Gundred is writing about her mother's recent death from cancer. Her lyrics are crushingly direct and address the stages of grief one experiences after a loss.

While discovering this album I'm working through the stages myself, grieving what feels like the loss of my former self. I'm stuck in the anger stage for an unhealthy amount of time. It's become difficult to be around people, or to even care, and I have to fake it with all of my strength most days. I do a decent job of it, but those closest to me can see the strain. Listening to this album helps to quell the anger, or at least to channel it into something remotely positive, even if it's only by realizing that other people feel this way too, as lost and sad and angry as I do. In the song "Heartbeat," Gundred sings:
How do I come around
After all that has gone down
I strain to hear the sound of my heartbeat
How can I tell myself
If I can't tell anyone else
I'll stick my thoughts on the shelf 'til tomorrow
Oh Oh Oh Oh
I don't know where to go to get away from this sorrow
Take it away, take it away, take it away, take it away
I cry in the car while driving to another radiation treatment because the song is putting my feelings into words. I just want someone to take it all away, the heartache and the pain that squeezes my chest like a boa constrictor until I can barely breathe. How do I come around when I don't even recognize who I am now? How do I talk to people about this when I can't even express it to myself yet? In time, by accepting change, I'll come around, I'll talk more honestly and openly about it all. Right now though, it's like I'm living inside of a stranger's body. This album becomes my security blanket, and I will return to it over and over again during the next five years. It helps bring me back to myself.

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It's December 2014, just a few days before Christmas, and I'm being escorted down a long and winding hospital corridor by a nurse. She's leading me to the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, where our twin children were moved following their arrival on planet Earth earlier this evening. After somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen hours of labor, my wife gave birth to our children via an emergency cesarean section. That wasn't the plan, but it wound up being medically necessary while my wife was in the operating room. When your babies are born premature, they're taken to the NICU. They need time to grow and gain some strength. NICU nurses oversee their care and are, without question, some of the most amazing women and men I've ever known. The nurse walking with me down the long and seemingly endless hallways at that moment is no exception: she's kind and understanding while I try to adjust to the fact that I'm now a father.

My wife is recuperating in her room, told by the doctors and nurses that she needs a little more rest before I can wheel her down to the NICU. So she tells me to go first, to see our children. We'd seen them of course in the O.R.: a girl and a boy. Violet and Benjamin. But nothing in my life has prepared me for the first extended period of time I'll spend with them.

My heart is beating through my chest, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all: my wife just gave birth to our children, two small versions of us who will grow and evolve into their very own, distinctive selves, completely separate from whatever they've inherited from us. They're both doing well, healthy and beautiful. I'm overwhelmed by the magnitude of new life, unprepared for the rush of emotions it stirs inside of me. While holding my son in my arms, tears form in the corners of my eyes. I promise him that his mother and I will always be there for him and his sister. We're sure to let them down sometimes, but we'll always love them and work our hardest to be the best parents we can be for them. Then I tell them what little I've learned about life so far that seems essential to living with some semblance of balance. I encourage them to be themselves and not worry about any expectations from their parents. Just simply be. Later on I remember that my father said something very similar to me once.

At this moment, I can feel a new and clean break happening in my life. Things will clearly never be the same again, but this time I'm excited at that prospect. I realize that raising children will be even more difficult than I can possibly grasp right now. Years of being frazzled and overtired from lack of sleep, an infinite amount of diaper changes, and navigating each new stage of their lives lies ahead. That's okay. In this moment I welcome the change, embrace it, even. I'm ready.

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Pushing through the market square,
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years left to cry in


Resist attempts at normalization


Words matter. This notion that campaign rhetoric is meaningless is disturbing for several reasons. The implication is that you either voted for someone you thought was spewing nonsense, or that you believed his irresponsible and dangerous rhetoric and wanted to see him follow through on it.

We're losing a president who was thoughtful, kind, compassionate, intelligent, and had a sense of humor. We didn't have to agree with all of his policy decisions to realize he was, at heart, a good man. We're trading him in for a bully, a misogynist, a racist, a man who played off of people's fears of the Other to ride a wave of hate into office.

His rhetoric is now being normalized all over the place. That's dangerous. He and others need to be held accountable for what they say. Words have meaning and impact. Chances are the people who don't see this now, will see it in time once the president-elect fails to follow through on any of his unrealistic promises.

It's been a strange week. We're all still processing, on both sides. There's an awful lot of hate being spewed by people who feel they "won" something here. People who are grieving are not only grieving for themselves or their families and friends, they're grieving for the people he conned into electing him. He looks overwhelmed already. His appointments have been frightening so far.

This divide right now is the worst we've seen in a long time. There's a lot of talk about healing, moving forward. That's a luxury to most, and that sort of sentiment is rooted in privilege. That's what got us into this mess in the first place. To paraphrase Dave Chappelle, an internet troll will be our next president. Think about that.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Video killed the rental store

VHS or Beta?

Did you appreciate the video rental store while you had it? Probably not. Instead you simply spent nearly every Friday night (and usually Saturday night, too) meandering around inside its walls looking for VHS tapes to rent. You'd browse as if you'd never been there before, always on the lookout for something new or old that you'd missed the previous week.

You tried to impress friends with your knowledge of cinema, something that any teenager can fake to another teenager because neither know a damn thing about anything yet. But you did know what movies you liked, even if you couldn't express why, exactly. That would come later, with more critical viewings on your own and in high school and then college film courses. For now, you only knew what films made you feel something—happy or sad or scared or excited or confused. Those were the movies you rented repeatedly.

In time the sleek and shiny (yet semi-soulless) DVD crowded the ugly and clunky (yet semi-charming) VHS off the shelves. By then the luster of the entire experience had waned for you anyway. You still loved movies but something about the video store itself had grown old, tired, perfunctory. Then one day—and really, these things never happen in a day but they tend to feel like they did—the video rental store was gone. Oh sure there are  still some scattered about, servicing rabid movie hounds somewhere, god bless them. You might have one nearby, but you don't really care to find out.

Now you find your movies on streaming services or Blu-ray or, when you're desperate and feeling the financial pinch, YouTube. Everything's at your finger tips now. You never mourned the loss of the video rental store; when it went away you shrugged. It's just one more in an endless line of experiences you won't have again that you never appreciate when you're having them. These experiences take place in public spaces that are huge parts of your life for years and then, suddenly, they're not. Usually you don't know its happened until after the fact and by then you've moved on, found new spaces within which to exist.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Janet


Have you ever wanted to hug a pop music icon as much as you wanted to hug Janet Jackson in, say, 1990? She exuded warmth, soul, and acceptance. Hell, years before that you wanted to save her on Good Times. Oh, Penny! Little did you know, she didn't need saving.

Look at the videos for "Love Will Never Do" or "Escapade"—her smile shines brighter than a thousand suns. She practically radiates happiness in those videos. Certainly she could be as serious as a heart attack—"State of the World" and "Rhythm Nation," for instance—but she was always still fun. Those songs set up residence in your heart and mind, never leaving. Back then you marveled at them as they premiered on MTV; each one more insanely catchy than the last.

Name a better pop love song from the last twenty-five years than "Love Will Never Do (Without You)." See, you can't. What's often forgotten now is how heavy her songs were during her prime—the beats on "Love Will Never Do" practically blast you off your feet; "Rhythm Nation" is pure epic R&B jam but also entirely unlike anything pop music had seen before. It explodes out of the speakers and never hits the brakes. Props to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, in full effect.


A poster of Janet from the "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" video hung on your bedroom wall during most of high school. That smile, always beaming out at you when you entered the room. The smile always seemed even brighter after a particularly rough day in the teenage trenches. In the song Janet knew that in theory love is fine, but in reality it simply would never do without that most essential ingredient: you. What more could a listener want to hear? Sometimes silly things like pop music get you through certain points in your life, but it's only later that you fully appreciate them. Years later you felt you'd outgrown Janet's music, her poster. You were a fool.

During the last Presidential debate, that perverse misogynist, that habitual sexual predator, infamously muttered "nasty woman" at his opponent. Memes of Janet and her song "Nasty" popped up online in an instant. It was as if a nation needed Janet and her nasty grooves again. Gimme a beat. It's time to give a damn, let's work together. By listening to her you could cleanse the toxicity from your system that had infected you over this long and grueling election cycle. You had deluded yourself into thinking you were fine without her over the years. Then you started spinning her songs again. It was obvious that for a decent chunk of time, when she and you were younger and full of electricity, there was simply no one better in popular music. For your money, she was the best there ever was at what she did and you'll endorse her every day of the week.

They said it wouldn't last. What do they know, anyway.

#VoteJanet

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

"My destiny lies in the stars:" The Dark Phoenix Saga


The book stared back at me from an aisle end cap in a local bookstore in upstate New York. It was 1984 but my memory is foggy on the exact time of year, so I was either eight or nine years old. The arresting cover hooked me immediately. Big bold block letters announced "The Uncanny X-Men." The gorgeously painted cover, by legendary artist Bill Sienkiewicz, featured characters I wasn't yet familiar with but who would quickly be among my favorites—Jean Grey (Phoenix), Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Nightcrawler, and more. At this point I was already reading science fiction, fantasy, and comic books. This volume would be the spark that ignited my lifelong affinity for the Marvel mutants.

My mother saw the look in my eyes as I held the trade paperback in my small hands. To her eternal credit, she purchased the book for me that day. I would read it cover to cover, over and over again, for months. I didn't just read the story; I absorbed it directly into my system until I could hardly tell where I ended and it began. And oh, that story. It was and remains marvelous, epic in scope and full of heart. That story is "The Dark Phoenix Saga," still considered by most to be the preeminent X-Men story line and one of a small group of comic book stories that are consistently listed among the most seminal the medium has ever produced. Originally published in the pages of Uncanny X-Men in 1980, the story was only four years old when I stumbled upon it. I'd been too young for it in 1980, but now I had it, the entire arc in one fat book.

The double-page splash from Uncanny X-Men #137 is as iconic a shot of the classic team as you'll find.
As it turned out, I was the perfect age to discover the story. It had everything that a young kid could want: big action, thrilling adventure, fantastical space opera, heart-wrenching pathos, intense drama, and genuine humor. I would often stare in awe at the stunning art from Byrne and inker Terry Austin. I was addicted to Claremont's floridly purple prose and nakedly honest dialogue that revealed just how different—and how special—these X-Men really were. Young kids at that time hadn't seen characters like them before, not in comics or elsewhere. They were flawed yet earnest, just like us. "The Dark Phoenix Saga" contained within its pages multitudes, the best aspects of which I still find myself chasing in other works of fiction over the years, in an attempt to experience something similar to the overwhelming sense of wonder I feel whenever I reread it.

This scene never fails to choke me up.

Very few pop cultural artifacts elicit the same sort of wistful nostalgia in me as this edition of "The Dark Phoenix Saga." I only need to see the Sienkiewicz cover and I'm transported back to when I first saw it. Both the cosmic bombast and deeply personal story at the heart of the story were the ultimate expressions of everything Claremont and Byrne had been building towards during their epic four-year run on Uncanny X-Men. The boundaries and limits of creativity were forever altered in comics and beyond. Joss Whedon has discussed its influence over his work many times. This classic story is the reason Uncanny X-Men became the essential superhero book to watch in comics during the 1980s and 1990s. It's why the X-Men have been cinematic stars for a decade and a half now.

Dark Phoenix and her story remain incredibly popular with fans today.

To have discovered "The Dark Phoenix Saga" at such a young age was formative. It became the epic story by which I would judge all others, no matter the medium. Jean Grey, both the hero and the villain of the piece, is still the fictional character I hold closest to my heart. It remains one of the only works of pop culture that I'll genuinely contemplate repurchasing nearly every time Marvel repackages and republishes it. More often than not, I just repurchase it. The atrociously wrong-headed film adaptation of the story in X-Men: The Last Stand still rankles me today as much as it did ten years ago. While I don't have any tattoos, the only one I've ever seriously contemplated getting is the Phoenix logo (I still might do it one day, honest). This obsession all began in 1984, in a local bookstore in upstate New York, when the first collected edition of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" caught my eye. It was over for me in an instant. There was no going back. I was caught in the X-Men's powerful sway, unable and unwilling to resist. The X-Men, and particularly "The Dark Phoenix Saga," showed children like me that fictional stories could have real and lasting impacts on our lives and imaginations. For that reason alone, I look forward to reading it with my children one day soon.